Chinwe Ohajuruka is an award-winning Architect, Social Entrepreneur, CEO and Team Leader of Comprehensive Design Services (CDS) which develops sustainable affordable houses in Nigeria.
What is Comprehensive Design Service (CDS)?
Comprehensive Design Services designs, engineers and builds affordable green housing in Nigeria and Sub-Saharan Africa. We find that Nigeria is a society with an under-engineered built environment so we to take our standard designs a little further than just Architecture to incorporate everything required for a sustainable built environment.
How is sustainable building important to the development of Nigeria?
Sustainability is three-fold; it involves Planet, People and Profit. If all three do not work, you don’t have sustainable development. We are starting at the bottom of the pyramid and working with the government and people to design affordable housing that is well-built, affordable and it takes the planet into consideration (green building).
You stated that you are working with the government. What major steps can the government take to improve the poor living conditions across Nigeria?
Having done it myself, I’m not as critical as I used to be; affordable housing is very difficult to achieve, but the government can provide enabling conditions. The reasons why affordable housing has been difficult to achieve are:
- Costs of construction is high;
- Large scale housing across the country has not been successful;
- Land is scarce and the process of transferring land is tedious, bureaucratic and costly;
- Cost of building materials is high. Some materials are imported and the value of the Naira is sliding.
Although we think the majority of the responsibility lies with the government there must be many things people in the country and private companies like yours can do. How do you think we can all get involved or is this something you think we can only leave to the government?
A lot of the work I did wasn’t with the government. I went to the government to let them know what I was doing but it was entirely private sector driven. I received a matching grant from USAID to conduct a project called ‘Renewable Energy through the Vehicle of Affordable Housing’ whereby we built some one-bedroom housing units and moved some people from a slum settlement from Port Harcourt into what we called our Eco Village and that was when we entered another competition with Cartier and won for Sub-Saharan Africa. It is through such projects that we were able to reach the government.
Watch Chinwe take us through the CDS Eco village in Port Harcourt
So you would suggest for private companies like yours to put themselves on the global map and then reach out to the government?
Yes, this is what I would recommend because it is hard to go to the government when you don’t have anything to show.
Being an African female Architect in a male dominated role, what pressure or challenges have you faced and how have you handled them?
I found out that being a female in a male dominated profession made me special. When I walk into an environment and people realised that I knew what I was talking about, it became easier, I felt more doors were opened.
What do you enjoy most about what you do?
I think Architecture is one of the most exciting professions in the world because you have to put a shelter around ALL of man’s activity. One minute I’m designing a specialist hospital, the next minute I’m designing a simple home. It is mind blowing the range of projects I’ve been able to work on; from the small to the large, from the simple to the complex, I think it’s really exciting
What advice would you give someone who would like to venture into a career in Architecture?
It depends on which country they were in, as Architecture depends on the economy of the country because it requires a lot of money and a lot of capital investment. So if the economy is slow and struggling, I would say be careful because there isn’t a lot of capital investment going on; during low economical times one of the first things that are cut off is capital funding – people just stop building. It’s a long and expensive course and to go through all of that and not have a job is very disheartening.
But what if a person was very adamant and wanted to stay in the field?
If someone is determined to do Architecture I would tell them to hang in there; hang on to your dreams, and from the moment you are in school make sure that every vacation you get, you get yourself into a firm, or somewhere you can get work experience. That way, you also make contacts for when you graduate, which is what I did. From my very first year I started to work in offices during the summer holidays and by the time I finished my degree, various offices were asking me whether I was coming back to them, so I had choices. I was focused and I knew what I was doing. I did not want to be unemployed after graduation, and I wanted to work with the best of the best.
What advice would you give a person who would also like to start a ‘green’ business?
Get educated. During Architectural school and whilst working in Nigeria I used to do what I used to call ‘Appropriate Architecture’ or ‘Regional Architecture’; designing what was appropriate for the region. When I moved to the United States 13 years ago, I came across green building and eventually found out that this was what I had been looking for right from the time I was calling my buildings ‘Appropriate’ or ‘Regional’. The word I was looking for was Sustainability so it fitted right in with something I always believed in.
How else do you think Nigeria can be sustainable apart from housing?
There are various ways:
- Locate your business along a major transportation axis where all of your staff can get to easily without having to use their individual cars but rather can use public transport to get to.
- Design your buildings in such a way that it respects the climate and doesn’t need too much energy to make it cool.
- Instead of generators think of solar systems.
- Instead of desktops, use laptops all around offices, which uses far less energy.
- Encourage recycling of paper, glass, metal, plastics and cardboard.
- Use motion detectors in offices so that when people leave a room the lights automatically go off.
Although there are many ways to become more sustainable, as you’ve just mentioned, do you think Nigeria is on the way to becoming more sustainable or do you think we have a long way to go?
Since 2011 I have been teaching and training on green building in Nigeria and people have been extremely receptive. One of things that I stress is that people must be educated and encouraged to make it a way of life. We have a long way to go but we are on the way and people are embracing it enthusiastically.
Nigerians like yourself help create a positive image of the people in diaspora. How else do you think Nigerians in diaspora can positively promote the country globally?
By being the best we can be anywhere we find ourselves. Cartier is in its 10th year for organising their global competitions and out of the 9 so far held, Nigeria has won the Sub-Saharan African award 4 times!!! These are some of the ways Nigerians are being ambassadors for the country. Nigerians in the US for example, are excelling in amazing ways; in Medicine, Engineering, Science, Art and in Law. Someone was telling me that at the 2016 Harvard graduation, when they were going through the roll call there were so many Nigerian names. I believe that when you give a Nigerian an opportunity after having to struggle so hard in Nigeria, we can excel without as much effort in the West, where there are enabling conditions and opportunities.
There are a rising number of young Nigerians getting in touch with our culture and heritage, what are your thoughts on this?
I think that it is very important for Nigerians in diaspora to get connected with the culture. Starting with the dress, I think Nigerians have the best dress in the entire world, of course I may be biased! We have the best fabric, the most elegant head ties and the best swagger!
How do you think a communities who are addressing the diaspora can be part of creating such connections?
There are various ways but mainly by proactively seeking to be connected: social media, seeking ideas, collaborations, and staying connected with similar Nigerian organisations.
What are your hopes for the future of CDS?
In 5 years’ time I would like to be one of the best known developers of affordable green housing, not just in Nigeria but in Sub-Saharan Africa. I plan to do this not only by building, but also by encouraging and empowering others to build green.
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